Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2021

Rebels of the Neon God

Much like last year, 2021 was a big year for watching older movies for me, since the relative slowdown of new releases caused by the pandemic made it a pretty good time to look back and watch things that I'd been meaning to see for a while and never got around to, in addition to revisiting old favourites because they had significant anniversaries (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), new installments (The Matrix trilogy, The Animatrix, cutscenes from Enter the Matrix) or just because they're rad and there's never a bad time to throw them on (Speed, Ocean's Eleven). 

While getting vaccinated and cinemas re-opening meant that I was able to see more newer films this year than last year, and I generally feel better about my current best of the year list than at the same time in 2020, as is tradition, I won't be writing up that list until sometime in February (or March or April or I might just forget to do one as happened in 2019) since I like to spend January catching up on awards movies that expanded into more theatres (or, more likely given our weird reality, on streaming) rather than risk missing out on stuff that came out in November and December but only really starts to become available to most people in January. It feels like I shouldn't put the finishing touches on my list until I get to see Drive My Car at the very least, and who knows maybe Memoria will play within a thousand miles of me.

So this is a list of all the older movies I watched for the first time in 2021. It was frankly a nightmare putting this list together because I watched a lot of really good movies this year, ranging from films I've been meaning to see for years but never got around to, to movies that I only just heard about for the first time a few months ago. Whittling the long list down to this took ages, but these really feel like the films that stayed with me this year.

Les Vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade, 1915) 

Each installment of Feuillade's serial about a gang of criminals terrorising Paris is a joy in and of itself, full of twists and double-crosses and daring escapes. But what I really loved about watching all seven-ish hours of it was seeing the making it up as they go along storytelling progress over time, as each storyline seemed to wrap up only to reveal yet another person is really the true leader of Les Vampires, necessitating a whole new chapter of the story. That sense of rushing headlong into the unknown, barely putting down tracks while the train is already in motion is absolutely intoxicating, and probably the most fun I've had watching a serialized narrative since the giddy early seasons of Lost.

The Crowd (dir. King Vidor, 1928)

For fear of sounding hyperbolic, The Crowd is a film which encompasses the agony and the ecstasy of life itself, all delivered in shimmering, unforgettable images. Following the story of one man from birth until adulthood, encompassing the loss of his father, the loss of a child, and the struggle of trying to escape the undifferentiated mass of humanity that provides the film's title, it's one of the purest and most keenly observed films about just trying to stay alive and above water that I've ever seen.

The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale, 1933) 

Hard to argue with the cultural significance of Whale's two Frankenstein movies, but I think this one may be my favourite of his Universal monster movies. The invisibility effects themselves hold up tremendously well nearly eighty years later, but it's Claude Rains' gleeful performance that really sells the malevolence of Jack Griffin. The significant portions of the movie dedicated to Griffin messing with people and causing chaos in a small town also have a real joie de vivre to them, and feature some of the most bumbling and ineffectual police you will ever see.

The Clock (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1945)

if you ever needed a single movie to define the term "swooning romance", The Clock would more than suffice. Telling the story of a soldier (Robert Walker) who meets and falls madly in love with a young woman (Judy Garland) while on 48-hour leave, it's a joyous, old-fashioned Hollywood romance that is practically supernatural in its depiction of the power of love. Garland and Walker have terrific chemistry, more than justifying the leaps of faith required by the audience for the whole thing to hold together, and the supporting cast are all great as well, with Keenan Wynn getting a particularly virtuosic one-take scene as a drunk in a bar.

Hangover Square (dir. John Brahm, 1945)

After Stephen Sondheim passed away, a list of his favourite movies started circulating online and since I hadn't heard of this film and it was readily available on the Criterion Channel, I thought I'd watch it in tribute. Not only did Sondheim have tremendous taste, but if it turns out that he murdered a bunch of people in a fugue state at some point, then including this on that list is a really funny way of confessing. A pitch-black drama about a composer who occasionally has breaks with reality that just so happen to line up with terrible things happening around London, it's a tightly-wound coil of a movie that lets the audience know pretty early on that things aren't right, and holds us in suspense about when things will really start to go wrong.

Nightmare Alley (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1947) 

No offense to Guillermo del Toro, whose work I generally like, but I watched the original Nightmare Alley in preparation for his new version and now I don't feel like I need to see the new one. A thrilling noir initially set in the world of carnies and freaks, before moving to the equally murky, but more nicely appointed, world of money and power, it's a great movie about a quintessentially American striver, and what lengths someone will go to to get what they want. Tyrone Power is really electrifying in the lead role, selling the easy charm of a confidence man with gusto, while also making his fall brutally human.

Caught (dir. Max Ophüls, 1949)

Captivating drama about a young model who falls in love with a Howard Hughes-esque magnate, who then suffers at the hands of his cruel indifference. Ophüls’ camera is really intimate and intense, capturing the emotional pain inflicted with startling acuity, while also letting the light creep in when Barbara Bel Geddes’ character goes and gets a job working as a receptionist for James Mason, at his most charming. A gorgeous, brittle gem, easy to see why Phantom Thread earned a lot of comparisons to it a few years back.

The Earrings of Madame de... (dir. Max Ophüls, 1953) 

Rapturous, yearning, yet pristine like a steel trap. All of the romantic dalliances and high society scheming that drive the plot are full of roiling passion, but hanging over everything is the question of when everything will come crumbling down. The eventual collapse winds up hitting so hard because you empathize with pretty much everyone, and yet know that they cannot act any differently because they are trapped by their class and background to act in ways that can only destroy them. In its way, as brutal and inexorable as any horror film.

Islands of Fire (dir. Vittoria De Seta, 1955) 

I'm using this one as a catch-all for De Seta's collection of ten short documentaries about life in remote Italian island communities, which I watched on the Criterion Channel and found totally beguiling. The films are all brief, generally running less than twenty minutes, and extremely low on context or explanation outside of opening title cards that set the scene. Beyond that, they consist of gorgeously shot footage of people in small, out of the way communities living their lives and carrying out their daily tasks, be it catching tuna or working in a sulfur mine. Islands of Fire is the most dramatic of the bunch, capturing life in the shadow of an active volcano, but they are all perfect little snapshots of a lost way of life.

7 Men From Now (dir. Budd Boetticher, 1956)

Tight as a drum Western in which Randolph Scott hunts down and kills the men responsible for the murder of his wife, with the title doubling as a countdown for the audience to when his grim task will be completed. The action is clean and tense, the interactions between Scott and his co-stars are full of energy and tension, with his dynamic with Lee Marvin being especially fraught, and the whole thing looks gorgeous. A pretty much perfect little thing, and I feel like I have to track down more Budd Boetticher movies to see if they are equally as good, or just because his name is such fun to say and type.

Harakiri (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) 

Like the other Kobayashi films I’ve seen, most notably his epic The Human Condition saga, this has an elegant intensity to it that I found absolutely riveting. Harakiri tells the story of a ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) who arrives at the estate of a lord and requests permission to commit ritualistic suicide in the courtyard, with the film slowly revealing through flashbacks the connection that he has to the clan, and why his request is not as straightforward as it first appears. Every shot is beautifully composed, almost painterly, but the performances are all at a high key of emotion that prevents it from ever feeling dry. It’s a stylistically apt approach for the story which is so much about people being trapped by codes and systems, and trying to extract a modicum of decency from it.

Dont Look Back (dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)

Despite being a Bob Dylan dork and owning it on DVD for years, I had never previously sat down and watched arguably the single most important piece of iconography from the man's career. Even after decades of analysis and reappraisals, and Dylan himself changing so much as an artist, the sheer cool that leaks out of the screen when watching Dont Look Back is undiminished. Following Dylan on the 1965 UK tour that immediately preceded him going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the film captures the media phenomenon of Dylan perfectly as he goes from show to show, meeting fans and sparring with journalists by giving them funny, oblique answers to their questions, as well as more relaxed scenes of Dylan and his crew hanging out. Even in those more candid scenes it does feel like a put-on, but then again the tension with Dylan has always been between man and myth, face and facade, and Dont Look Back really is a key, seminal text for that discourse.

High Plains Drifter (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1973)

There's some stiff competition, but this might be my favourite Eastwood Western, certainly my favourite of the ones he directed. Cut through with a dry sense of humour that contrasts nicely with the bloody revenge tale that forms the spine of the film, High Plains Drifter is among Eastwood's most visually lush movies, mixing great sweeping backdrops with moments of quiet surrealism as his unnamed gunman arrives in a town, agrees to protect it from violent bandits, then starts having the townsfolk start redecorating the place for reasons that don't become apparent until the film's violent, nightmarish finale.

The Holy Mountain (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) 

For years the only thing I knew about The Holy Mountain was a sequence in which a man in a loincloth walks slowly down a rainbow-coloured corridor towards some sort of guru figure. It's such a striking and weighty image that I assumed it must be from the finale of the movie, so I was surprised and delighted to discover that it happens in the first third, and that the movie only gets wilder from there. While certain aspects of Jodorowsky's psychedelic fable feel rote or tired at this point (the ending in particular is a kind of meta shrug that most film students would be embarrassed to use now) it's filled with surreal, kaleidoscopic imagery that speaks to what a brilliant stylist he is.

Streets of Fire (dir. Walter Hill, 1984) 

Though this was my first time seeing this movie, I was deeply familiar with it thanks to the killer soundtrack, which used to be on the iTunes at the box office of a cinema I worked at and which would be in pretty constant rotation whenever I was working. A luridly-coloured biker/street gang movie crossed with a musical, it's a movie that feels destined to be a cult hit because Hill pretty much just made it for himself from things he loved. While sometimes that gives you Star Wars, most of the time it results in idiosyncratic beauties like this, full of life and energy, destined to be loved by a small but passionate group of weirdos. The only knock against this movie is that Michael Paré is pretty boring as the lead, but Diane Lane and Willem Dafoe more than make up for it as his ex-lover and rival, respectively.

His Motorbike, Her Island (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)

Having only previously seen House, Obayashi's beautiful and unique take on the ghost story, it was great watching this as my second Obayashi film and seeing how that same playfulness and thorough understanding of how to bend and break cinematic conventions remain on full display with a much more conventional story. Told as a reminiscence on the part of the male lead, a young man who meets and falls in love with a woman while out riding his motorcycle, the story seems on its face very straightforward, but Obayashi makes it feel fresh, like he's the first person to ever tell a story of lost love. His staccato editing makes each scene really come alive, while the shifting use of colour, going from black-and-white to colour within the same scene or within the same frame, really makes it feel dreamlike and bigger than life, fitting the scale of the emotions of the movie.

Crossing Delancey (dir. Joan Micklin Silver, 1988) 

An utterly charming romantic comedy that I think deserves to be spoken of alongside When Harry Met Sally... as one of the pinnacles of the form. Funny and spiky without being overly arch, it's got an absolutely dynamite pairing at its heart with Amy Irving as a bookseller in her thirties who is set up on a date with Peter Riegert, who runs his family pickle shop, only for the two to get off on the wrong foot. The push and pull between Irving and Riegert makes for a really compelling "will they won't they," with the moments of genuine pain they inflict on each other resonating just as strongly as the incredibly solid jokes.

25 Ways to Quit Smoking (dir. Bill Plympton, 1989)

As with the Islands of Fire, this is a catch-all for a slew of Bill Plympton animated shorts I watched this year, of which this and How to Make Love to a Woman were the best. Pretty straightforward stuff, the short consists of a series of suggestions for quitting smoking, which range from simple ("Use Aversion Therapy") to ridiculous ("Use Heat Seeking Missiles") all delivered in a deadpan, often violent style that keeps elaborating on the joke beautifully.

Once Upon A Time in China II (dir. Tsui Hark, 1992)

It's tough to pick between the first two films in Tsui Hark's epic saga of Chinese history, but I'm including the second here because it feels like a refinement of the style of the first one, with action set-pieces that are still exhilarating and inventive but with a little more polish, and because Donnie Yen plays the villain and the final confrontation between him and Jet Li as Chinese martial arts master, acupunturist and folk hero Wong Fei-hung, is fantastic.

One False Move (dir. Carl Franklin, 1992)

Lean, sun-dappled thriller that’s airtight but never mechanical. Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams and Michael Beach all bring a messy humanity to their characters, making their missteps and fuck-ups believable, rather than just feeling like necessary steps on the way to the final showdown. The scene of Thornton and Williams in a gas station, trying to figure out whether they’ve been spotted by a cop, is a masterclass in suspense, but that term could apply to the whole movie, which truly does not let up.  

Rebels of the Neon God (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)

As someone who loves Tsai's later work, which gets as close to a philosophy of "no plot, just vibes" as possible without becoming totally abstract, it was thrilling to watch his debut and see how much his style has been refined over the last thirty years, yet how much of it was right there from the beginning. With its hints of a love triangle and scenes of stealing motherboards from arcade machines in order to re-sell them, it's superficially busier than some of his subsequent movies, but also filled with indelible liminal moments of the characters just being teenagers, smoking and hanging around arcades in 1990s Taipei. Its mix of spurts of action with stretches of waiting for that action may be one of the best depictions of the experience of being a teenager that I've ever seen.

Muriel's Wedding (dir. P.J. Hogan, 1994)

A pretty much perfect comedy. Toni Colette plays Muriel Heslop, an awkward young woman who dreams of escaping her humdrum life who strikes up a friendship with someone she knew from high school (Rachel Griffiths) and sets about trying to build a new life for herself in Sydney, a plan which doesn't exactly work out how she wanted. Collette is fantastic as Muriel, managing to be acerbic and sympathetic as she tries to make her dreams come true, even if it involves a lot of lies and inflicting suffering on the people she cares about, and her relationship with Griffiths is now one of my favourite cinematic friendships. All that plus wall-to-wall ABBA on the soundtrack, what's not to like?

Breakdown (dir. Jonathan Mostow, 1997)

I have a very clear memory of seeing the trailer for Breakdown when it was about to come out in the UK (most likely attached to the 1998 version of The Three Musketeers, which was the only movie I remember going to see around that time) and being absolutely riveted by it. The premise - Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan play a married couple driving through the American West whose car breaks down, Quinlan gets a ride from J.T. Walsh who then kidnaps her, leaving Russell stranded in the middle of nowhere trying to rescue his wife - was so simple yet horrifying, and was amplified so much by the vast emptiness of America, that it really left me shaken, and I never forgot it. Fast forward 23 years or so and I finally got around to actually watching the movie and it more than delivers on its promise. Russell is a great everyman hero, the much-missed Walsh makes for a deeply unsettling villain, and Mostow (who sadly never hit these highs again in his subsequent work) delivers a taut, tense, vicious little thriller.

The Wrong Guy (dir. David Steinberg, 1997)

The highest compliment I can pay to The Wrong Guy is that it's the closest I've ever seen to a live-action Simpsons episode. Starring Dave Foley as an executive who goes on the run after discovering the dead body of his boss and assuming (because he removed the knife and then ran through the office covered in blood) that he's the prime suspect, it's an extremely silly riff on Hitchcock and derivative "wrong man" tropes that takes place in a universe full of the dumbest people you'll ever meet. It's a great vehicle for Foley and his particular knack for playing characters who can barely hold it together, which also fills out the world around him with great supporting characters, fun visual gags, and a complete comic sensibility that sadly didn't get more opportunities to play out on the big screen.

Auto Focus (dir. Paul Schrader, 2002) 

Another movie that I've wanted to see for years - this time because I saw a BBC feature on it around the time of its release and thought it seemed fascinating and taboo - Schrader's retelling of the life and death of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane (played wonderfully by Greg Kinnear) is among Schrader's most visually compelling, shifting in style from a sunny, mid-century compositional style at the start of Crane's story to a bleaker, rawer style as his life begins to spiral amidst his sex and porn addictions, and using dream sequences that mix Crane's real-life and his on-screen persona to great effect, it's as audacious in its own way as his previous takes on the biopic, Patty Hearst and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It's also a great showcase for Willem Dafoe, who plays Crane's friend and alleged killer, John Carpenter (not that one), allowing him to be both his warmest and seediest self.

Godzilla: Final Wars (dir. Ryûhei Kitamura, 2004)

This might be my most demented inclusion considering that Godzilla: Final Wars has a divisive reputation. Released to mark the 50th anniversary of the Godzilla franchise, it feels very much like a best of that crams in as many monsters and actors from the history of the series as possible, and as such has a chaotic, meta tone that verges on incoherence a lot of time (evidenced by probably the most famous moment from the film; the newly revived Godzilla absolutely obliterating the one from the 1998 Roland Emmerich movie). It's very much a love it or hate it proposition, but coming towards the end of my months-long project of watching all of the Godzilla movies, I found it be a hugely enjoyable installment, and it really felt like Kitamura was trying to push the series into a new direction, thematically and aesthetically, after a couple of so-so previous movies that mostly played it straight.

It's Such a Beautiful Day (dir. Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Despite adoring Hertzfeldt's more recent World of Tomorrow shorts, this year was the first time I investigated his earlier work, of which It's Such a Beautiful Day is the undoubted highlight. Animated in his signature simplistic yet layered style, in which characters that are basically stick figures exist in vivid, abstract landscapes, and narrated by Hertzfeldt himself, the film chronicles the mental decline of a man named Bill, who is suffering from a condition that affects his memories and causes him to have surreal, sometimes violent hallucinations. Hertzfeldt's delivery has a bluntness to it that makes the film by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, with jokes about the things Bill sees seguing seamlessly into lines about the nature of death and loneliness. His later work explores similar territory and expands upon it to great effect, but the rawness of this has a cutting quality all its own.

63 Up (dir. Michael Apted, 2019)

The death of Michael Apted can't help but cast a shadow over the most recent installment of his landmark documentary series, which has traced the lives of a small group of ordinary British people from the age of seven to, as the title says, sixty-three years old, with Apted checking in on them every seven years. Hopefully others will continue the series for as long as the participants are alive and willing to be involved, but if this proves to be the final film in the series, it feels like a good ending. Dealing as it does with the death of one of the long-time interviewees and the terminal illness of another, the documentary would already feel pretty significant in terms of the overall arc of the series, but considering that Brexit happened between this and the previous installment and British life in general became more chaotic between 2012 and 2019, it all feels very contemplative, and the poignancy that comes from the contrast between seeing the participants as children and as adults is heightened immeasurably by the now undeniable proximity of death, and their palpable concern about what the world will look like for their children and grandchildren.

On a lighter note, a fun game to play while watching it is to try and guess who voted Remain and who voted Leave. I got all but one of them right, which is a weird testament to how well Apted captured the essences of his cast over the course of the series.